Two thousand years ago, in a remote province, began a revolution that shook the Roman Empire from its roots. Today’s Christianity, however, is more often associated with conservatism than with revolution. It is right wing, conservative, xenophobic, nationalistic and militaristic people who often tout their “Christianity” the most. We are left wondering how Christianity could support such things when it started as a statement against them. Indeed it’s hard to find any revolutionary elements within present Christendom, but that’s because they are buried under millenniums of history and interpretations. To find them we must travel in time and first discover the matrix in which Christianity was born. Just as we couldn’t understand Mahatma Gandhi unless we first understood British colonialism, or Martin Luther King unless we first understood America’s racial problems, neither can we understand Jesus unless we first understand the Roman imperial paradigm.
As everywhere else, also in Palestine, Rome had entrusted the care of its imperial interests into the hands of local authorities. The priestly class, being the representatives and interpreters of Jewish law (Torah), extremely central to Jewish society, played the greater role in maintaining the peace with Rome. When Jesus came, even though not violent, he was immediately perceived as a threat to the status quo for the simple fact that he operated independently and often at odds with these religious authorities. An itinerant preacher, a mystic and a pacifist, working outside the main centers of power, yet he was still on a collision course with the established order. Eventually he clashed head on with both, the temple representatives and the new world order in which they had been enrolled.
We mustn’t forget that the Pax Romana rested on the principle of military might. In imperial theology it was god who gave the emperor power to conquer, defeat his enemies and establish order. It was god who gave the military victory through which came peace; so it was the mighty and the conquerors who deserved glory and honor, because through them god gave peace and prosperity. The word gospel (euangelion) was in fact first used by Rome to proclaim the good news of peace and prosperity under Ceasar.
To be noted, peace by military might wasn’t an exclusively Roman concept, but could be found also in Jewish theology. In the Old Testament the term “Lord of Hosts (armies)” appears 261 times. Apart from its monotheism, Jewish theology was not that different from that of Rome or other ancient nations. Israel too claimed the right to conquer militarily, to steal the land and houses of other people, to take possession of other nations, and all this with the excuse that god had first promised it to them through Abraham. Their holy scripture even encouraged the ethnic cleansing of indigenous populations, so that they would never reclaim their lands, even sanctioning genocide for national security.
In the ancient world these were common beliefs and practices. Every nation and tribe had its own particular deity who sanctified their struggle for survival, who favored, supplied, protected and gave them victory in war. Much could be said of those cultures that preserved this “holy” justification for their colonial and imperial wars, for their aggression towards other nations, which they considered unloved by God because of their barbarous, indigenous and pagan ways, who therefore did not deserve their land and freedom, but could be enslaved or eliminate altogether.
The seeds for legitimating military conquest are preserved in the glorified accounts of past holy wars. They are now embedded into the cultural DNA of a supposedly Christian civilization that confuses Roman and Jewish theology with the gospels, and continues to behave as if entitled to rule the world by divine right. What’s most amazing is that in today’s secular and scientific world, where religion has become nearly insignificant, this hubris still survives. Modern man might have shed some of his religious myths but not his tribal and nationalistic arrogance. It seems as if religion was just an excuse for it, as is often the case. It is not the present, however, that I wish to get into, but the period in which Jesus appeared.
It is only by understanding first century Hebrew and Roman theology that one can appreciate the magnitude of what Jesus introduced. His ideas contrasted both. His representation of God, whom he called dad (abba), left no room for the previous images of the god of a single nation (or empire), who ensured its peace through war. He demonstrated his new image of God by submitting to persecution and final execution, without the usual self-preserving retaliation that we would all be prone to. It was a radical form of pacifism that went against expectations and defied all previous racial and religious prejudices. No more the god of war and retributive justice, but the one of love and restorative justice. No more eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, but “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you and if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other also.” It was a heretical new representation of god, one that undermined both Jewish and Roman presuppositions.
Particularly, the empire disliked ideas that undermined the cult of its emperor, which was the fulcrum of its imperial unity. Yes, Rome was tolerant of other religions and integrated them into its religious pantheon, but to challenge the divine role of its government, as embodied in the emperor, was considered high treason. The archaeological and documentary sources tell us of the exclusive titles given to its emperor, such as divine, son of god, god, god from god and that he was addressed as lord, redeemer, liberator and savior of the world. It was believed that he had overcome his enemies and brought peace to the world by divine favor, because he was divine and even had a miraculous birth. The proclamation of his new world order was the good news, the euangelion. The Christian preaching of another gospel and another peace, as that of an alternative empire of God based on love and humility, instead of military might, and to call their leader by the same titles as Caesar, was an outrageous act of defiance.
Of course some say that it wasn’t Rome who wished to crucify Jesus, but the Jewish authorities. The Gospels seem to confirm such a view but it wasn’t exactly so. Although it fell on the Jewish authorities to decide on the Nazarene, they didn’t do so only with regard to their personal bias but also, and perhaps mostly, for their national interests. Being fully aware of their obligations towards Rome, they were naturally intent on avoiding anything that could tip the scales against them. When Jesus, in a most delicate moment, brought his revolution to Jerusalem, it naturally alerted and alarmed the high priest. As the authority responsible for a fragile peace, in a time of great religious and national fervor, such as the celebration of Passover, he couldn’t help but fear the inevitable and decide that it was better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish (pl. 11, 50). It was a pragmatic assessment; what he saw as the least of evils in order to maintain the order that Rome required. It was their responsibility, so the priestly class decided that even if not violent, Jesus’ message was too provocative to be tolerated. Sooner or later his proclamation of the empire of God would collide with that of Caesar, as it happened shortly thereafter.
Even in the gospels, where Pilate appears to want to spare Jesus, the Jewish leaders warned him that it would be treason against Caesar, because of his kingdom and kingly proclamation. Though Jesus explains to Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, therefore not a threat to Rome, Pilate still put a notice on his cross calling him the king of the Jews, as if saying, not ours but yours. Since it wasn’t long before Christianity spread all through the Roman Empire, you get the impression that the Jewish leaders actually understood its challenge better than Pilate could, and history proved them right. Most scholars, however, believe that the accusing role of the priests, as opposed to the neutral one of Pilate, is a later elaboration, in that period when Christianity had broken relations with Judaism and was warming up to Rome. Historically speaking, death by crucifixion was a Roman policy towards rebels and dissidents. When it came to non-violent dissidents, we also know that it was customary to execute only the leader, which would usually discourage other from following in his footsteps. It is only with armed groups that Rome would demand that all participants meet the same fate. This seems to have been the pattern with Jesus and, before him, with John the Baptist.
We have seen how in spite of Rome’s tolerance towards other religions, there wasn’t any towards anything undermining the cult of the emperor. Refusing to honor it, was interpreted as treason and subversion, as an act of enmity towards the state, its peace and order. The Jewish refusal to recognize the divinity of the emperor was in fact very problematic, and it was only because they were an ancient people and religion that a compromise had been reached. The conditions for this, for maintaining their temple and traditions, depended on the ability of local authorities to prevent insurrections. This was the priests’ responsibility, who knew what the consequence would be for failing to restrain the nation. If the conditions for compromise failed, then the Roman troops would descend on them and it would all be over, as it happened shortly thereafter. True, it was an armed revolt that eventually caused the end of the Jewish nation and its temple, not Jesus’ followers, but it shows the precariousness of the times in which Christianity appeared. Compared to more militant groups, such as the zealots, Jesus had been a peaceful roving preacher who even tolerated Romans, yet we must also consider how Roman Christianity eventually domesticated our image of Jesus. Unless we understand the historical and cultural matrix of that period, it is very difficult to understand how subversive Jesus really was, how politically rational were his persecutors and how his crucifixion was practically unavoidable.
It is only when we consider Roman values, as compared to those of the Sermon on the Mount, that we realize how radical Jesus’ message was. It is only when we understand what it meant for Christians to give Jesus titles used only for the emperor, that we realize what an act of defiance it was. Rome had only one divine ruler, born miraculously, who was lord, redeemer and savior and it was Caesar. It was written all over, in coins, images, monuments, arches, public works, etc. To call Jesus by these names was equal to saying that these inscriptions were lies, that Caesar was none of these things but was an impostor. To then proclaim an alternative empire, the kingdom of God instead of Caesar’s, left no doubts about the dangers of this movement.
It is only when we learn that a Roman parade, with dignitaries on horseback, entered Jerusalem at every Passover, and learn that at the same time, on the opposite side of the city, entered also the Nazarene on a donkey and with a crowd proclaiming him king; only then do we understand why the Pharisees begged him to silence the crowds (Luke 19:39), because the provocation was enormous. At every Passover Jerusalem filled with Jews from every part of the empire and the Roman troops would come to make sure that none stirred them into a riot. A small provocation, in a time of such religious fervor, would be enough to cause a revolt, as had happened before.
It is only when we realize that the good news of the kingdom, Jesus’ gospel, was the rebuttal to the empire propaganda, its euangelion (gospel) of peace and prosperity under Caesar; it is only then that we realize how provocative it was, and how subversive was the idea of preaching it to the whole world. So maybe you are beginning to contextualize things, to better understand the revolutionary challenge of early Christianity. Maybe it is becoming clearer, even in practical terms, why Jesus’ ministry came to such an abrupt end. You may even be wondering why you didn’t connect the dots before, why Christianity appeared so religious and doctrinal, but made so little political sense. You may even be wondering how the Christ figure could be so domesticated as to become the patron of future emperors and empires. Perhaps you’ve started to understand why primitive Christianity was so hated by Rome, and why later Roman Christianity explained the earlier persecution in such spiritual terms, instead of giving more realistic, political and plausible reasons for it. Perhaps it leaves you wondering how the masses were first propagandized against the Christian minority, and later made to adopt a revised version of that minority view?
The answers are not far from us, as reality today isn’t as different as we’d like to think. Today’s political, economic, military and social systems aren’t resting on Christian principles any more than ancient Rome did. Today’s world is still run by military might, economic blackmail and mass control strategies (propaganda). Of all applied theories on global politics none resemble, even minimally, the Sermon on the Mount. The Christianity that some western powers claim to represent has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the movement initiated by Jesus. Traditional Christianity is a syncretism, a multi-layered compilation of elements drawn from various traditions, in which the gospel is totally marginalized. It’s an adaptation created to meet the necessities of past and present political systems, who found great support for their national and military ambitions in the Old Testament, but none in the gospels. Think, for example, how the Sermon on the Mount made it completely unacceptable for a Christian to be a soldier. Documentary and archaeological evidence show that early Christians, following Jesus example, preferred martyrdom to taking up arms. Consider then what happened when the empire became “Christian” and Christianity was adapted to the necessities of the empire; it not only became acceptable, but it was even compulsory for all soldiers to be “Christians.” That’s when the first bibles were compiled and copied, and the gospels were buried somewhere between all those nice war stories.
Yes, when the empire realized that Christianity couldn’t be stopped, and Constantine understood how it could be domesticated in his favor, he embraced it and began to transform it into state religion. Nothing unusual, as history is full of such examples, of revolutions that morphed into the next system. So Jesus was domesticated and Plato became the lens through which he was interpreted. Christianity was changed from a way of life to a system of doctrines and ideas to believe in. The final aim was to make it an institution at the service of the new world order, so what started as revolutionary became a reactionary force.
At this point you’re probably wondering what mysticism has to do with it. Well, we all know how every political program, no matter how practical, economical and pragmatic, needs a religious/philosophical basis. Every political endeavor acts out of a particular understanding of human society, its nature, needs and aspirations. The religious or philosophical ideas behind a political manifesto or program are all too obvious, even in atheistic ones. It is that philosophical understanding that appeals to the deeper aspirations of people and motivates them to support the political process, whether it is explained in philosophical or populist terms.
When looking at antiquity we must take into account the religions and philosophies of the time, as political forces used those to rally the masses. Obviously the masses and their aspiration also impacted the type of ideas that were most useful. For example, in a patriarchal and superstitious society, if the emperor was declared to be god, people would seek to incur his favor and avoid his wrath. If a central cult was good for national unity, a temple would be declared god’s house so people would honor it with their gifts, hoping for some divine returns. If society needed management at the personal level, a priestly class was needed to represent and mediate between god and the individual, and people would seek their favor as well.
Apart from this interdependence with the socio-political order, religion had no other forms of validation. There were sacred formulas, laws, doctrines, concepts and definitions of God, rituals, holy places and ancient scriptures, but that was all. Other than that, there was no other reality that religion could offer, no real or present experience of the divine, no transcendental manifestation except those written in their ancient traditions. What mystical tradition existed, was a fringe phenomenon, sometimes bizarre and rarely part of mainstream religion, furthermore even these were used to further validate the claims of the official cult.
So here is the peculiarity of primitive Christianity. Jesus had stepped out of the religious and political order to introduce an alternative one, another view of life and the world. He called it the empire of God, as opposed to that of Rome, but when asked about it by Pilate, before his crucifixion, he said: “My empire is not of this world.” He was speaking of a reality beyond the one ruled by Rome. His revolution was not the usual rejection of one system for another; it was not the dualistic preference of one political order over another. He did not hate the Romans or the Jewish priests. Jesus’ revolution was not motivated by hatred against anyone, even if it did cause the hatred of some. It was as if he was saying: “Rome is here, the temple is here, the world is as it is, but here is an alternative that doesn’t depend on any of them and is available right now.” His alternative went far beyond what a purely political revolution could produce, above what any new social order could deliver, because it was the introduction of a reality already existing, that anyone could access anywhere, even if not all could see it, or were ready for it.
So how was the reality of the empire of God manifested? Rome and its emperor god had so much to show; it controlled the world, with armies, trade, safety and prosperity. The Jerusalem priest had the most holy place, the scriptures and the rites prescribed by it. These were all tangible, visible and recognized, but Jesus and his alternate world? What evidence to demonstrate it? He was an insignificant preacher from an insignificant town, without credentials or powerful institutional backing. How could such a person create such an explosive and rapidly expanding movement? It is widely recognized that the strength and driving force of early Christianity was something out of the ordinary, a mystical experience of sorts. The resurrection, a conversion, being born again and the baptism of the Holy Spirit are some of the narratives employed to explain it. Regardless of which, it appears quite certain that the experience of the divine was the evidence and central feature of this alternative empire idea. Even its outward social manifestation, the love they had for one another, appears to have been more of a consequence than a cause, although some could argue that living in love is a catalyst for mystical experiences. In fact, what comes first? Does living in love attract God or does God cause living in love? Some believe, and it is even in scripture, that they are one and the same (John 13: 35, 1 john 4:8).
In any case, Jesus’ message was revolutionary in the true sense of the word. It was a true challenge to the religious and political systems even if, strictly speaking, it was neither religious nor political. The world it spoke of was a different one and yet it was already there “The Empire of God will not come with observable signs. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ For you see, the empire of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17: 20, 21). It required being born again to see it, just as God had to be sought in spirit and in truth instead of in religion, religious buildings and holy places (John 3:04). It was an inner reality that Jesus taught to seek in private prayer rather than outward, showy religion (Matt 6,5 and 6), seeking the intimate, personal experience of God, that rebirth which makes one catch the wind of His spirit, and become the manifestations of Her invisible but perceptible flow.
He taught that you couldn’t figure it out mentally, rationally or theologically, but could only experience it by trying it. Only by doing could one discover its origin and nature (John 7:17). He taught that God would send the experience of His presence, which would touch, comfort, teach and guide. Early Christianity was a charismatic movement, led and based on the direct experience of God’s presence and on the mystical manifestation of His gifts. This is what provided the evidence of things not seen and not yet defined theologically, even before its scriptures were developed and organized. It was a revolution vindicated and validated by God himself, by His presence, defined as the Holy Spirit. The mystical experience was the seal of God, His light in their midst, the propulsion of this revolutionary movement and the main difference between mere religion and reality.
True, traditional religions also had oracles, trance-like states and mystical experiences, but they were presented as the reward of scrupulous adherence to the prescribed religious discipline. Whatever mystical experience could be had or observed in the official cults, served to enforce the idea that they were the only legitimate ones, that closeness to god was the reward for obedience to their dictum and traditions. The fact that Christianity offered the experience of God’s presence to anyone and independently of previous religious requirements, was extremely liberating. It basically put a pin on the balloon of religious exclusivity sustained by those who considered themselves the guardians of religious orthodoxy. In Christianity, God was freely giving of himself to anyone open to it, even those whom religion deemed unworthy. That was the appeal, and how the Christian revolution worked, by offering and demonstrating a better lifestyle, blessed by God’s presence, but independent of both political and religious institutions. That’s why they hated it, because up to then, they had claimed a monopoly on both god and the quality of life. A careful study of the genuine epistles of Paul (minus later interpolations), written decades before the gospels, reveal that this was exactly the challenge of early Christianity.
From this comes the obvious conclusion, that when a Christian movement is no longer revolutionary nor mystical, it has died out, even if it continues to exist as an institution. The birth in revolutionary fervor, the life and eventual death in institutionalized religion, is a recurring cycle as certain as that of the seasons. It is not for human failure that a movement dies, not because people lose their way and forget, but because God is something that happens to people, and not something they generate. It has nothing to do with us, as God is something we can only receive and get caught by, but never manipulate, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them” (John 6.44). The experiencing of God’s presence is what leads to renewal, enlargement, the expansion of human horizons and the birth of new movements. Once the wind of it is past, however, all that remains is what people do to immortalize its memory, the writings, theology, traditions, songs and the nostalgic emotions that resemble movement but cannot move anymore.
Nonetheless, whoever has known the revolutionary action of the spirit, even if past, immediately recognizes an imitation, that which pretends to be but is not. Whoever has known God’s presence, recognizes the difference between Christianity and Christendom, the mass marketing, domesticated version that imperial Christianity became. Inevitably, when the Christian movement and its mystical dimension are made more attractive and appealing for mass consumption, it loses its power to move at a deeper level. Whenever Jesus is reduced to a mere evacuation plan out of this life, to a mere theoretical and theological formula, or to a manageable moral figure that supports the established order, then the same system that sent him to the cross has been recreated. When all that is preserved of his movement are the harmless aspects, the inoffensive doctrines, the theoretical definitions of God, traditions and places, the end result is exactly the opposite of a mystical revolution; it is instead the same reactionary system against which Christianity had rebelled.
God does not seem to sanction with his presence that which does not represent him, that calls itself by his name, but which is only a synthetic counterfeit. Two thousand years of history show us that Christendom has been anything but a faithful representation of Christ. The so-called Christian west has been guilty of some of the worst crimes and caused the most devastating conflicts. Even so, in this long and sometimes sad history, there were many bright spots caused by those who managed to extricate the true seeds of the Gospel; those in whom they blossomed, bringing forth the fruits of a real Christian alternative and true experience of the divine. Always out of step with others, seen with suspicion and even persecuted and yet, these revolutionary mystics whose names would fill books have left their mark in history.
As always, even today there are those who have known, who have experienced God, who have made a U-turn and gone against the tide; who have dropped out of the accepted pattern, as if seeing what no one else could see. Indeed, it was because they saw it, even if they couldn’t quite explain it, because human language was inadequate and could only approximate things, through parables and similitudes. These are they who, when meeting the religious-commercial imitation of what they’ve actually seen and known, can’t help but walk away from it. Equally, those who seek for genuine experience recognize the hollow pretense and do not come near it.
Let me clarify, however, that it is not for any ill-intention or sinister conspiracy that these religious counterfeits are produced; they are simply a natural outcropping of our human condition. Dared we to be truly honest, we would recognize this same tendency within each of us. It is in fact an early stage of life to seek to build the container of our ego with unshakable truths, while failing to recognize our many contradictions and paradoxes. Always coming sort of our own goals we nonetheless fill the void with assumptions, with what appears as the most logical deduction and proclaim it emphatically, as if self-evident and irrefutable. This isn’t really wrong, but is part of a process that by elimination and through various obstacles leads us to eventually discard our assumptions and acquire tools for greater understanding, to know less dogmatically and yet more fully. It is that knowing which isn’t merely mental and dualistic, and neither rejects the mind but transcends it while still including it. As a child becomes an adult he does not discard what it knows, it only understands it differently for what more he’s come to know. This natural progression of life isn’t always linear nor does it necessarily proceed in order of age, it does however always come through the death of the mental ego, the imaginary self which we developed in relation and by comparison to others. It’s a knowing that passes through inevitable suffering, falls that swing us upwards, tragedies that awaken us from our slumber, contraptions that cause us to be born again, to open our eyes, to discover latent senses that lead us into ever more learning.
For those who are born to such a life, who have tasted and breathed God’s revolutionary reality, both within and without, for them there are no more substitutes or institutions representing it. It either is or it isn’t. For them compromise is impossible because they can’t untaste what they’ve tasted and can’t unsee what they’ve seen. Having known the original, imitations will not do, not even those emotional phenomena that often pass for mystical experiences. Yet the mystical is only a doorstep away. The cosmic Jesus is the door, the true door and not a doctrine to believe in with our minds. Actually, the more that we believe in what constitutes traditional Christianity, the more we have to unlearn, and the less likely we are to walk through that door. Why? Because we are more likely to think that the old Jewish, Greek and Roman wine, in German, English or American bottles, is good enough.
So I’ll close returning to the beginning, even to the very first Christian writer, the apostle Paul. He began with a mystical experience that allegedly caused him to fall from his horse (whether real or figurative), after which the scales fell from his eyes (real or figurative) and he could see. Then he spoke of a person, most probably himself, who was caught up to the third heaven and heard things so astounding that they could not be expressed in words. Such were the credentials of the main contributor to the New Testament. Written some decades later, the Gospels teach us that we must be born again (get off the horse of false identity) to see the kingdom of heaven (losing the scales from our eyes) and realize that it is neither in Rome nor in Jerusalem but within us (the third heaven) that we meet God in spirit and truth.
What does it all mean? That the reward of a socio-political religion is merely social and political, Rome or Jerusalem, while the real Christian alternative is for the whole person, an inner transformation that has outward social ramifications, but without external imposition. That was and still is the inner and outer liberty promised by the Christian revolution. It can only start from the individual, through his personal experience of God’s presence. Without that, it is better not to even try, as Christianity would only be an outer belief system, and bound to disappoint. Exactly as such, Christendom is in decline, but if Christianity is to survive, its only hope is in the mystical golden seeds that lay buried in its history. Those who find them, plant and water them, will reap their fruits.
“The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all”. Karl Rahner